From slave rebellions to Black Lives Matter, the key to liberation lies in our history
In 1841, 135 enslaved people aboard the ship, The Creole, were being transported from Virginia to the South's most prominent slave market: New Orleans. Madison Washington and 17 other enslaved people attacked the ship's crew and captain, took hold of the weapons on board, and retrieved all documents regarding their enslavement. They redirected the ship to the nearest British port, The Bahamas. There, they were "declared free on the ground that a man by natural law has the right to kill his would-be enslaver and [...] when a slave touches British soil he becomes free." This later became known as The Creole Case and is often deemed the most successful slave revolt in the country.
Thirty years prior and just upriver from New Orleans was the 1811 Slave Revolt, where Charles Deslondes led what is considered the largest slave revolt in history. Often praised and recently romanticized, the goal of this revolt was to take over New Orleans and establish a Black republic. Deslondes and hundreds of his peers met their demise about 40 minutes outside of the city. 95 enslaved people were put to death — their heads were put on spikes along the river road and others were hung in today's Jackson Square.
Now 209 years later, protesters gathered (June 5, 2020) in mass outside of Jackson Square to protest yet another horrific system of oppression: police brutality. This comes in the midst of a pandemic that Black people, especially those in Louisiana, have been disproportionately affected by. The murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police sparked national outrage and protests proclaiming #BlackLivesMatter. In many ways, Floyd's unjust death(in addition to recent victims of police brutality, Breonna Taylor and Sean Reed) was the tipping point for a people that have been subjected to the racism of America's systems since 1619.
Initially peaceful protests turned violent in some cities (in some instances, credited to outside agitators). Many watched a police precinct in flames, looting of stores, and vandalism of buildings in horror across news stations. The narrative quickly shifted to the call for "peace and nonviolence," the disapproval of "thugs and criminals," and the invoking of Dr. King in quotes used completely out of context. While a peaceful revolution is ideal and preferred, how often do we examine and fault the can once it explodes, and not the 400 years that somebody continuously shook it?
America has cognitive dissonance when it comes to history. Slavery was the foundation for the oppressive systems to come, and we are not as far removed as we like to think we are. Rebellions like the 1811 Slave Revolt and The Creole Case showed us necessary means to a necessary end: freedom.
The level of unrest has exposed the layers of systematic racism within U.S. institutions — from the police, prisons, housing, politics, to education. At this point in time, I question the ability to truly reform our way out of the systems that are historically and inherently racist to their core. When looking to our history, there was no "reforming" our way out of slavery. Louisiana's Code Noir, 'The Black Code,' was a set of laws enacted in 1724 to regulate the lives of the colony's Black population. In the same document that "allowed" enslaved people a day of rest on Sundays, also called for the cutting of an enslaved person's hamstrings if caught trying to run away. To what extent do we praise leniency on Sunday, if that still meant enslavement on Monday? To what extent do we replace demands of reform with abolition?
Racism is Violence
There is something to be said about the way our nation has historically acted as if violence is the only language it understands. There was no fear of depriving human beings of their basic rights, what would happen to families after being separated at auction, or the physical and mental effects of enslavement of a people. The fear was always the rebellion of the enslaved. So much so, extreme measures were always in place to prevent such. The "congregating of slaves" and practicing of African religions were forbidden under Code Noir, especially after the Haitian Revolution, which was initially planned at a vodou ceremony and successfully established Haiti as the world's first Black republic.
An example was made out of Charles Deslondes following the 1811 Slave Revolt, in which his body was completely mutilated and burned to instill fear in those who dared to consider rebellion. In Algiers across the river, enslaved people were held in "slave pens" until they were to be ferried across the Mississippi for auction in the French Quarter. A gunpowder magazine stood at modern-day Powder Street in Algiers and was to be the last line of defense if the enslaved were to ever revolt. If the enslaved rebelled, they would blow it up.
In Search of Liberation
The spirit of resistance has existed in New Orleans and Black people since our origin. It's a spirit we have carried throughout our history and has maintained our survival. I truly wish for a city and country that hears us the first time, that prioritizes our humanity and cultivates a reality where we can live and thrive, not just survive and maintain.
How can Black lives matter when the Black community of Gordon Plaza in the 9th Ward is still living on toxic land?
How can Black lives matter when Black people are being displaced from their own neighborhoods and being replaced with #BLM signs?
How can Black lives matter when a Black neighborhood like New Orleans East continues to be disinvested in comparison to other parts of the city?
We commemorate events like the 1811 Revolt where enslaved people burned Louisiana plantations down to the ground in the name of freedom, but struggle to see the parallels in those raising hell across the nation for the same thing. It is critical to realize that we are the current embodiment of Black history — what are we doing or not doing to ensure that we're on the right side of it? This requires recognizing the roles we play, history as a guide, and understanding past movements (both nonviolent and violent) as curriculum for the times.
The solution to one oppressive system will never be another. To only address the current state of the country at the surface level is to completely miss the point. Colonization did not stop at our land and bodies, it also presents itself in our minds and spirits. It does not start or end with whoever is in office or the arrest of officers, but it does start AND end with us.
The revolution will be televised, but it'll also be internal. There is a higher level of consciousness on the other side of all this, and it's imperative that we get there. The most dangerous aspect of rebellions by the enslaved was not civil unrest or the damaging of property. It was the audacity of them to imagine something bigger than what they knew, beyond what they could see. I dare us to reimagine what our liberation truly means, and not just what we've been forced to accept.
I don't want to just settle for survival. I want us to be free.
And I don't find that "radical" at all.